In the 1970s, when metropolitan broadcasters wanted to understand racism, this is the sort of thing they’d do: get a room of eight-year-old white children to pour out their prejudice on-camera as their Asian and black classmates sat next to them looking shellshocked. Then put all their parents in a studio together, overt racist next to polite immigrant, with David Dimbleby in charge, as if they were lab rats in an experiment.
Ever since the EU referendum there’s been a revived air of ’70s experimentalism in news. If racism never went away (and we’ve certainly seen a recent spike in racist attacks on both sides of the Atlantic) and we’re out of touch with all those Brexiteers and Trumpists, editors are asking, is the answer to redefine what’s acceptable to broadcast, and be wary of insulting the likes of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump? In the quest to understand, are we “normalising” racism again?
In the US we’re seeing Trump’s White House strategist Steve Bannon – of Breitbart News, which runs headlines about “renegade Jews” – being euphemistically described as “populist” rather than “far right”.
Within a day of the US election result, BBC News Online wrote up Farage’s rambling opinions about President Obama
Within a day of the US election result, BBC News Online wrote up Farage’s rambling opinions about President Obama, made on a small UK talk radio station, without context or analysis. Obama was: “That Obama creature, loathsome individual.” ‘Creature’, pointed out some readers, was uncomfortably close to ‘animal’. He also joked about Trump’s history of alleged sexual assault: “Come and schmooze Theresa [May] but don’t touch her, for goodness’ sake.” No thought appeared to have been given to the impact of giving these remarks a much wider audience via the respected BBC News website.
On Remembrance Sunday The Andrew Marr Show gave the Front National leader Marine Le Pen a lengthy solo interview, in which she smiled and easily ducked a question about whether law-abiding Muslim citizens would be welcome under her presidency.
She matters, she’s polling 30 per cent was the case for interviewing her. Young magazine journalist Josh Manasa tweeted: “You let a racist say they’re not racist without a proper challenge, you let a million racists watching think they are also not racist.”
I don’t know any journalists who thought it wrong to interview her but the timing, the alleged weakness of her questioning and the failure to put her up against any of her presidential rivals has caused many viewer complaints.
Veteran ex-BBC journalist Robin Lustig, says: “The key is to ensure a clear divide between news and comment… Report them fairly and challenge them robustly”. Something, he believes, Marr failed to do with Le Pen. “In the case of Trump, I would throw major resource at investigating potential conflict-of-interest issues. I would also look very closely at Moscow’s links to all western populist-right parties.”
In Germany, where they really do remember Hitler, BBC Berlin correspondent Damien McGuinness observes that the far-right Pegida leadership is “too extreme and tainted by neo-Nazi associations” to get airtime. And unlike Britain and the US, Germany’s mainstream media, even its main tabloid, have a culturally more cautious attitude to reporting the right-wing AfD party: “Public broadcasting has a strong moral component, having been set up after the war (modelled on the BBC) but has more of a sense that there’s a correct way of thinking and talking, i.e. not racist, pro-EU, not sexist, pro-environment, which would preserve democracy.”
Unlike Britain and the US, Germany’s mainstream media, even its main tabloid, have a culturally more cautious attitude to reporting the right-wing AfD party
Is Robin Lustig worried at all about what’s happening in news, with a new caution about Trump? A journalistic version of what the philosopher Alain de Botton has called “political Stockholm syndrome”?
“I worry about the ‘we must give Trump a chance’ argument. Yes, Obama has to in order to maintain the ‘dignity’ of the office of president. But journalists don’t.”
Lustig also says: “I think the sense of mutual alienation between traditional media and a section of the ‘majority’ (i.e. white) community is greater than at any time in my lifetime. On the other hand, let’s not exaggerate. In the US more people voted for Hillary, and in the EU referendum the country was almost evenly split.”
Perhaps, as Canadian journalist, and former London correspondent for the Toronto Globe and Mail, Doug Saunders has said, it’s as simple as white Americans and British people needing to face up to their own radicalisation problem, with all the challenges that involves. And before we go, a happy story: a group of Facebook employees are campaigning to end the powerful algorithmic promotion of fake news. It’s a start.